The Explora Atacama, one of the most renowned hotels in San Pedro de Atacama, will accompany your exquisite and sophisticated dinners, with some of the best Chilean wines.
So watered, the repasts delight and delight guests without reservations. But the early hours of the excursions to which they enlist do not go well.
The van departs from the courtyard – the former stables of San Pedro de Atacama – in the dark at 5:30 am, more than two hours before dawn.
Leave the city. Little by little, it advances parallel to the border with Bolivia and to the Andean sector of mountains and volcanoes that establishes it. Without being able to see anything of the scenery around, a good part of the eight passengers in the van let themselves sleep.
Attacking the Ascension to the El Tatio Plateau
A faint dawn opens the day. Nicholas, the guide, decides to save us waste and wakes up the entourage. Around this time, we skirted a shallow lagoon, inhabited by flamingos, wild ducks and other less showy birds.
Nicholas takes advantage of the pretext to arouse our attention as well. “Friends, take a good look at the birds… it will seem like I'm making it up, but in these lakes, on cold nights, the birds sleep with their feet stuck in the ice. They only come loose in the morning – or in a little while – when the sun melts it again.”
We had neither way to prove it, nor reason to doubt it. Phenomena were not lacking in the region, far beyond the record-breaking aridity of the Atacama Desert.
We continued to climb through canyons littered with cactuses.
We crossed villages of adobe and lime with their picturesque houses and small churches made of adobe and thatched roof, blessed by crosses that the natives wear in bright wool.
And we reached the puna de Atacama, the Andean plateau normally considered above 4000 meters.
We spotted herds of vicuñas and lamas, some adorned with colored wool trinkets dangling from their ears. They are placed on them by the natives, in dedicated ceremonies, in the sense of blessing, identification and ownership.
The camelids we admire graze among coirones, also known as wild straw, the dry and cold-resistant low-hanging bushes that paint the vastness yellow.
Between Geysers and Fumaroles. El Tatio's Eccentric Geothermal Field
Almost 100 km and two hours after San Pedro de Atacama, the sun was already showing in its full splendor, we detected columns of smoke in the distance and in backlight. At first, they are confused with the product of small fires.
As we get closer, we unveil a Dantesque profusion of seething geysers and fumaroles.
Human figures walk through it, walking between the dancing curtains of steam. The indigenous people are used to treating this surreal setting by El Tatio “the old man who cries” or “the grandfather who cries”, in the Kunza dialect they used in the altiplano divided between the Chile, Bolivia and the Argentina.
Kunza became extinct sometime during the XNUMXth century, stifled by the spread of Castilian imposed by Hispanic settlers. Still, the name El Tatio has been passed down from generation to generation. In fact, disseminated behind the backs of backpacking gringos, it became eternal on a world scale.
We had reached the largest geothermal field in the Andes and the Southern Hemisphere, with an area of 10km². It is the third largest in the world after Yellowstone (USA) and Dolina Geizerov, member of the Kronotsky National Biosphere Reserve, in kamchatka peninsula, the eastern end of Russia.
At its 4300 meters of altitude, El Tatio is also the alleged geothermal field higher on the face of the Earth, with the eventual dispute of the Bolivian Sol de Mañana, a field between 4800 and 5000 meters but composed almost only of mud pits that release steam and sulphur.
Neighboring Bolivia creeps in to the side, east of the border established by the Altiplano-Puna volcanic complex, a conglomerate of stratovolcanoes and old caldera that, in prehistoric times, were at the base of gigantic eruptions.
By comparison, the legacy of this volcanic activity is tiny.
The El Tatio geysers project their eruptions at an average height of less than one meter and a maximum of five meters, distances only insignificant if we take into account the world record of the Yellowstone Steamboat geyser: 91 meters.
A Lagoon, Dozens of Travelers in Geothermal Ecstasy
Upon arrival, El Tatio and, in particular, its thermal pool generated successive manifestations of relief and joy in dozens of travelers who had gone ahead and bathed in a kind of natural jacuzzi.
Only at that hour did the outside temperature rise to positive. We could prove it by the sudden melting of ice around many of the eighty geysers.
Thus, between the dress and the undress, there was a lapse of unavoidable suffering that the bathers faced. Some with courage, others with pure unconsciousness.
The 30º at which the water sprouted made everything forget: the early morning awakening, the bumpy journey and even the headache that, at least in some of the outsiders, the mountain sickness and occasional alcoholic excesses from the night before, began to cause.
The thermal comfort of the lagoon guaranteed a ritualized, liberating and generative comfort of the warmest chats.
Certain bathers had been in Atacama longer. They were already repeating their incursions into the highlands on the eastern edge of the desert on the border with Argentina and Bolivia.
A few would even have climbed to exuberant volcanoes such as Cerro Toco, active Lascar, Licancabur or the neighboring Sairecabur, the last three to skim the 6.000 meters of altitude.
For these gringos, the reward of hot water would last as long as it did, or whatever the guides let it last. In the case of newcomers, it would have to be finished soon. The guides – at least they – knew how treacherous mountain evil could be revealed. And how much it would make customers suffer.
The Extremophile Microorganisms of the Atacama Desert
Other microscopic organisms, much more resistant to adverse conditions and that used those sulfurous waters, take us back to the phenomenal character of the Atacama Desert and its surroundings.
In 2003, a multinational delegation of scientists from NASA and the North American Carnegie Mellon University moved to Atacama with the purpose of implementing the Life in the Atacama, a program to improve the robotic rover vehicles they were preparing to use on the astrobiological mission Spirit.
After thorough investigation, the scientists concluded that only in Atacama had they found spaces without any kind of life. Thus, the place on the face of the Earth most similar to Mars was decreed.
Simultaneously, organic expressions found around proved to be analogous to those present in the early days of Earth, eventually also in the past existence of Mars.
Much more adapted and comfortable than the travelers sharing the pool, these so-called extremophiles have been proliferating for millions of years in the chimneys of the geothermal field. Mountain sickness is not known to cause them any discomfort.
In the particular case of El Tatio, organisms resistant to high water temperatures survive up to 74ºC of the 86ºC recorded in certain geysers, the boiling temperature at local altitude.
They generate a kind of microbial mat that transforms into an eccentric sinter, a siliceous or limestone deposit derived from the compaction of microparticles at temperatures lower than those of melting.
The Microbiology of El Tatio vs that of HomePlate on Mars
However, avoiding more obscure intricacies of Physics and Chemistry, the fascination comes from the fact that several of these microstructures present in El Tatio are similar to those found in HomePlate, a 90-meter Martian plateau documented by the Spirit mission, from 2006 to 2010.
The homonymous rover scoured it until, in March 2010, it attacked a grainy soil on the northeastern slope of the formation. It was thus left to prove that the deposits detected there were, like those in El Tatio, biogenetic.
The El Tátio weather pattern dictates that, at around 8:30 am, rising winds disperse the resplendent vapor across the surface of the plateau.
The dazzling light that is installed reduces visibility and makes walking between geysers and chimneys riskier than ever.
That day was no different. Some bathers who were persistent or who postponed their new submission to the cold outside, kept soaking.
Most of them soon left the thermal pool and aimed at villages in the region of Atacama, Caspana, Toconce, Ayquina, Chiu Chiu or others.
We accepted Nicholas' challenge. We inaugurate the return to San Pedro pueblo with strategic stops that, as promised by the guide, we do not regret.
El Tatio was not the only one geothermal field Of region. On the eminence of Guatin and its parched gorges dotted with cactuses, we stop at one of the Puritama hot springs.
We were almost a thousand meters below El Tatio. With the sun well up on the horizon, the ambient temperature had warmed. Puritama might not share the vaporous exuberance of the geyser field.
It had, however, a series of natural lakes that followed each other from top to bottom in the bed of a stream, surrounded by an eccentric forest of fox glue (fox's tails), as the Hispanics treat the plumeers, also known as clean. -bottles for reasons that stand out from their look.
The profusion of plants formed dense, circular hedges that surrounded each of the ponds. They gave them an atmosphere of retreat that contrasted with that which we had felt at El Tatio.
Once upon a time, the Atacama Indians resorted to its waters filled with sodium sulfate to recover from fatigue, arthritis and rheumatism.
Little or no sleep in the previous nights, worn out from successive excursions and walks, we considered the first indication to be justified.
We undressed again. We slipped into a pond without a soul. We recovered the soul and the body until the skin withered and San Pedro de Atacama complain to us.